A thoughtful movie

Everyone in India is watching talking about Peepli Live. After a long time a movie has caught the imagination of the country as a whole. (Link to the movie’s funky website.)

The plot starts innocuously with a poor indebted farmer called Natha contemplating suicide as a way of repaying his family’s debt. There are rumours of generous compensations for the family of the farmers that commit suicide due of indebtedness. Natha, sees this as a way of providing for his family after his death. He starts speculating about it in public and the story finds its way into the local vernacular press. Turns out that there is political battle brewing over the upcoming bye-election in that area. Overnight the national media, the politicians and the bureaucrats and the rest of the country get hooked into the story. Everyone starts trying to use the story to advance their owns interests as the story starts to snowball.

What ensures can only be described an gladiatorial contest. As the country becomes conscious about the imminent suicide of Natha through the media, various institutional components of the country get inter-locked in a battle to extract the most of out of the story for their own gain.

The beauty of the movie lies in its ability of capture the nuanced interaction between the various institutional components of the society. The bureaucracy, the media, the political establishment and a country hungry to consume sensational news.

Art is often an artist’s perception of reality. It often is not able to escape a particular perspective. Too often in the post-modern world, the perspective is celebrated and glorified. This is a reflection of the move towards self-reliance that accompanies modernisation.

Maybe, that is why it is difficult to come across art that is able to faithfully represent and explores the complexity of the world around us. The world around is woven from strands of reality that individuals experience. The sum of the whole is very different from each components. It is rare that an piece of art goes beyond a few strands. The complexity of the world is rarely captured in any form of art. If at all it is captured, it in the sterile general equilibrium models in Economics. It is welcome change of watch a movie that captures reality in a entertaining way and restrains itself from simplifying the world into black and white.

Elite capture of government machinery is a fairly clichéd theme. Peepli Live goes beyond that the obvious themes and is very deftly able to explore the tension within various institutions along the rural urban line. The suave urban TV anchor patronises the local news paper reporter. The local politician outmanoeuvres other more powerful national politician. The village politics drives national politics. The movie is extremely restrained in it portrayal and leaves the viewer to observe what is happening and to make up their minds.

The viewer observes the superstructure of the society grinding against the changing ground realities. This symbolises the permanent revolution that has gripped the nation since the early 1980s. The incumbents hang on to power, very hesitant to let go as the power centre’s dissolve and get more diversified. Recent work is telling us that the change in the country is not a result of the some brilliant insightful master plan by the incumbent policy makers and power brokers. It is a result of people forcing the policy makers and power brokers to let go. See Basu & Maertens (2007) for a very accessible account of this.

The power that centralised till the 1980 has slowly seeped away, resulting in a resurgent rural India. (See Deaton and Dreze, 2002) The rural India is slowly trying to hold the urban India accountable, while the urban India is hungry for resources and ready to grab anything and everything. The parallel with Singur, Yamuna Expressway or the Maoist insurgency in the tribal heartlands is inescapable.

In a strange way, I see Peepli Live as a complement to the Guru, a Mani Ratnam film made in 2007. Guru portrayed the resurgent India from a different perspective.  Guru is a story of Dhirubhai Ambani taking on the coterie of the industrialist and politicians that had shackled India for their own gains through license raj till 1980s. He is able to break their stranglehold by deviating from the prescribed law and accumulating enough wealth to take on the interest groups.

The power no longer lies within a small coterie. Various changes in the country has ensured that the power is geographically and socially diversified. There are many smaller power centre. Any policy or change is a result of the bargaining process between the various power centres. Institutional change as a result is on one hand painful slow but on the other hand more responsive to needs to of the people. The movie’s sophistication lies in its ability to capture this contradiction. Everyone in the country cares about Natha, yet nothing really changes.

A lot has been written about the ongoing transformation in India. The process of transformation is messy and elongated. There are winners and losers locking their horns like gladiators. India is shinning only for a minority. Peepli Live is just a ringside spectator, merely observing the gladiatorial contest. It dispassionately portrays what is observes without either getting swayed by emotions or wincing at the pain inflicted by the participants of the contest on each other. It is frightening how much life in India is like a gladiatorial conquest, where only the strongest walk out of the ring alive. The hope is that this is the just the birthing pains of new more equitable society of the future.


K Basu and A Maertens (2007). The pattern and causes of economic growth in India. Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

A Deaton and J Dreze (2002). Poverty and inequality in India: a re-examination. Economic and Political Weekly.

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